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Business

Back to the Future for Babelsberg Film Studios

In nearly 100 years of existence, the Babelsberg film studios have grown used to addressing the issue of their future. In the coming weeks, they will be sold -- but to whom and at what creative cost remains to be seen.

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The Berlin filming location for the Oscar-winning "Pianist" is for sale

Located in the green flatlands just outside Berlin, the historic German film studios have a colorful, some might even say checkered past. They played host to Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang, served as a backdrop for the production of hundreds of Nazi-tainted films between 1933 and the end of the Second World War, and became home to the 'DEFA Film AG' during East German Communist rule.

By the time the Wall fell, the studios were in a state of serious disrepair and in need of a cash injection. They were sold by the German government to French Compagnie Generale des Eaux, now the media giant Vivendi Universal.

For the past 12 years, Vivendi has been bent on turning Babelsberg into a major European film studio. But plagued by its own financial troubles, Vivendi now has to find someone else to play the lead role. A sale has been in the pipeline for some time, but Vivendi, which will be selling at a loss, wants to ensure that whoever takes the studios on also wants to make them shine.

Head to head

There are only two contenders: Studio Hamburg, a subsidiary of Germany's NDR public broadcaster, and the management team around Thierry Potok, current Babelsberg CEO, who want to acquire the studios by means of a management buy-out.

The ball is squarely in Vivendi's court, and while they scrutinize the bidders' credentials, everyone concerned is hanging on tenterhooks. But it was apparently never going to be an easy casting. "Vivendi is assessing the applicants with the care and consideration necessary to ensure an honorable end to its work," Babelsberg press spokesman Felix Neunzerling told DW-WORLD.

What Potok, a former French government worker and banker, could have on his side is money. Whilst Studio Hamburg is demanding €30 million ($36 million) from Vivendi to take over its activities, Potok has made it clear that he would settle for a modest €25 million, which is less than it would cost the current owners to close the studios down altogether.

Film versus television

German media has been making much of the implications of inviting a bonafide television network to run this historic highlight of the European film landscape. Film aficionados have voiced loud concern that a TV organization could sound the death knell for the film face of the studios. Ingrid Meyer-Bosse, press spokeswoman for Studio Hamburg declined to comment on the path Babelsberg would strike under the NDR subsidiary's control.

"Our main area of activity is television, but we also do some films," Meyer-Bosse told DW-WORLD. She stressed that at this point, the company was simply waiting for the outcome of the bid. Studio Hamburg already owns the film and television studios in Berlin's Adlershof, which was the location for Germany's recent box-office hit, "Good Bye Lenin!".

The general feeling in the industry is that under Potok's baton, the studios would be less likely to have their image recast. But to reduce the issue to film versus television is to make it too black and white. "Ultimately any studio needs both because one can't survive without the other. But the big turnover in a studio like studio Babelsberg comes from films, which generate more than 50 percent of the production service turnover," Neunzerling said, adding that the studio was completely booked out.

The big projects shot in Babelsberg seem to be getting even bigger. Over the past few years, Babelsberg has become a hot tip for Hollywood producers looking for studio locations on this side of the Atlantic. Roman Polanski got the ball rolling with his Oscar-winning film "The Pianist." In the past year, Babelsberg has been the location for the Jackie Chan blockbuster, "Around the World in 80 Days," Kevin Spacey's "Beyond the Sea," and "The Bourne Supremacy" with Matt Damon and Franka Potente. Next on the list is "Mission Impossible," starring Tom Cruise, which will start shooting at the end of August.If the successful bidder can build on this, it might even be possible to direct the studios out of the red.

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